............................Joe Souza, an ukulele maker, stands outside his Kaneohe workshop.

Jumping Flea of Kaneohe

By: Brett Wagner
Oahu Island News

The story begins with a log. Perhaps it is a 30-inch length of acacia
koa discovered, fallen, in the higher elevations of central Oahu, where the thin air and impoverished soil yield a tree of hardy stock and tight, strong grain. Given a few decades of peace and quiet, it might have rotted into mulch. But instead it found its way here, to a modest house overlooking Kaneohe Bay, where a craftsman named Joe Souza has other plans for it. In his hands, the log will be transformed into Kanile‘a ‘ukuleles; 20 of them, maybe more - a drab caterpillar reborn as two dozen musical butterflies. But it’s going to take awhile.

Arriving at the world headquarters of Kanile‘a ‘Ukulele, I am greeted by a friendly-ish rottweiler, two half-naked toddlers, and Kristen, Joe’s wife and business partner. There is no question that Kanile‘a, despite its growing reputation on three continents, is an ohana operation. Joe Souza wipes sawdust on his shirt as he guides me into the workshop. It’s a space not much bigger than a living room - which, in fact, it once was - now occupied by saws, sanders, stacks of wood, and the many dangling hulls of soon-to-be ‘ukuleles.

Joe is a lifelong player, but he didn’t buy his first uke, a four-string kamina tenor built by Pete Bermudez of Haiku ‘ukulele, until 1988. A year later, he began sweeping the shop floor for “Uncle Pete” and learning the luthier’s craft. He built the first Kanile‘a ‘ukulele in 1997, in the back room of his house. As word spread among musicians and collectors - mostly from Japan, the U.S. mainland, and Europe - the workshop grew. Finally, last year, Joe’s passion took over his household completely and the family relocated to make room for the expanding shop.

In the spare rooms of cramped houses, Joe and his generation of luthiers are building themselves into the exuberant history of the ‘ukulele in Hawai‘i. When the first one arrived by ship from Portugal in 1879, it was called “braguinha” and came ashore in the arms of Joao Fernandez. Tradition has it that Fernandez hopped onto the dock in Honolulu strumming Portuguese folksongs in celebration of the long journey’s end. The braguinha brought new melodic and harmonic possibilities to Hawaiian music, and interest grew. Fortunately, another Portuguese vessel disgorged a few skilled woodworkers eager to bring music to the masses. All the little braguinha needed now was a Hawaiian name and a celebrity endorsement: The latter was provided by King David Kala¯kaua, whose enthusiasm for the tiny 4-stringed guitar made it a sensation. The origin of the name “‘ukulele” is not as certain, though the translation “jumping flea” (describing a player’s fingers hopping about the fret board) has charmed its way into popular history. The ‘ukulele became central to Hawaiian music and culture; and Hawaii has become uke-central for the global thousands - from Kyoto to Cleveland to Kathmandu - who share King Kalakaua’s passion.

But this is the story of a log. What will be required to guide it into uke-hood? The short answer is skill, patience, artistry, and more patience. Pointing to the chunk of trunk by the door, Joe says, “Before that wood is ready to become an ‘ukulele, it will age for 5 to 15 years.” Like fine wine and tax returns, tone wood cannot be rushed. An uke made from insufficiently aged wood might carry a tune as long as it remains in humid Hawai‘i, but take it to Tulsa and watch it buckle and bow as trapped moisture escapes - rendering it useless except to decorate the wall of a T.G.I. Friday’s. Kiln-drying is a shortcut employed by some manufacturers, but Joe will tell you lumber’s tunefulness burns away in an oven. To produce an ‘ukulele that your great-grand-keiki will strum in your honor, the only option is to wait it out.

Start with a log of excellent tone wood. Spruce, red cedar, and sequoia are sure bets; sliced thin they remain rigid lengthwise but flexible across the grain -  the recipe for resonance. Koa is treasured for its tone, too, but only certain logs will do; the stress of high elevation produces trees with narrower, tighter growth rings than those of their well-to-do cousins in the lush valleys. Just as a life of hardship and privation has produced many a great musician, so has it produced some excellent tone wood. Stress delivers something else too - the prized “curly” grain pattern that makes certain ‘ukuleles shimmer in the light. Premium-select curly wood, the highest grade, is rare and hard to find, but that’s not to say it always comes from the rim of a remote gulch on the Big Island. “I found this piece of curly mango at Tru-Value Hardware. I saw it and said, ‘That’s a beautiful piece of wood.’ It’s been drying for a year-and-a-half now.” Check back with Joe in 2007, and he might show you the uke that narrowly avoided becoming a shelf.

Joe ages his wood in three stages: 6 months in log form, half a decade as 2-inch thick boards, and another three months at 3/16ths of an inch. These boards he sands to their fighting width, 70/1000’s of an inch, and cuts into the components of the uke’s body. The sides are steamed and pressed into S-curves in aptly named “side-bending jigs.” The back of any proper uke is curved slightly, too, to improve resonance. But the soundboard, the source of a stringed instrument’s voice, the key to its soul - that’s the art. Here Joe’s eagerness to talk story about his craft bumps up against an impulse to protect trade secrets. He’ll say this much: The challenge is to modulate the resonance of the soundboard with scalloped braces affixed to its underside. “Too thick and the sound is muffled, too thin and the integrity of the soundboard comes into question.” The only way to gauge your progress is to tap the wood. Tap and listen. Listen, tap, and tweak.

That Joe has a fine ear for the subtleties of tone (and the know-how to do something with it) is more remarkable when you learn that making
instruments is not his first or only profession. Yes, he devotes most of his time to the manipulation of fine bits of exotic lumber. But he spends several days a month dealing more brusquely with wood of all kinds: that is, putting it out when it’s on fire. Meet Joe Souza, firefighter: ladder 17, fire station 17.

“It’s gratifying to be able to help people. That’s what keeps me going into the fire station. That and the camaraderie, also. The brotherhood. It’s definitely not the money.” Joe might be the only man on Oahu who can navigate a conversational detour from the finer points of mother-of-pearl fret board inlays to the adrenaline surge of stepping inside a burning house. There have been some chicken-skin moments in his seven years as a fire-fighter, but Joe seems to value this part of his life as much as his calling as a luthier. “Twenty years from now, I hope it’s the same.”

Once the body is assembled and the neck attached, the ‘ukulele’s musical identity is born. Its tone, its voice, is determined by the quality of wood, the dimensions of the body, and by the mysterious nuances of the sound-board’s undercarriage. What remains to be achieved is the other half of
the luthier’s art – making it beautiful. Mother-of-pearl inlays – in the fret board, around the sound hole, and rimming the edge of the body – are almost a language of their own. Joe shows me an ‘ukulele he calls “po‘okela”; it’s a prototype he built, “just to see how long it would take me” (answer: 180 hours). The po‘okela uke’s fret board writhes with a “vine of life” inlay, all elegant helix and intricate curlicue, that Joe sketched freehand, transferred onto the fret board and then routed, before imbedding the mother-of-pearl mosaic. Inspecting the results, I wonder how many of those 180 hours went into this grace note alone.

It’s easy to see how making ‘ukuleles could consume every moment of Joe’s life if he allowed it to, just as the shop consumed his house. “We don’t make the tuning keys and we don’t make the strings, but everything else is handcrafted from the log,” he remarks, the pride in his voice a signal of this fireman’s commitment to the luthier’s art. I show him my own ‘ukulele, one I picked up in Waikiki two years ago.  Joe smiles and strums. “This is one of the nicer production ukes on the island,” he says. “Production,” I take it, implies something less than “hand-crafted from the log.” Well, yes: “The fingerboard comes from Taiwan, the neck comes from California, the bridge from Indonesia.” It turns out my ‘ukulele is better traveled than I am. The labors of three nations went into it.

Joe has been rewarded for his talent and commitment with a growing reputation. His instruments are increasingly regarded not just as things to play and enjoy, but as an investment. In the universe of the collector, where a pristine 1932 Martin 5K tenor might go for $25,000, some are banking that
the same will one day be true of a vintage Kanile‘a ‘ukulele from back in ‘03 when Joe Souza still worked out of his little shop in Kaneohe. This means that many of the ‘ukuleles he sells will never be passed around at a backyard pa‘ina. “They’ll get the ‘ukulele, tune it up, strum it once and say ‘sounds good!’ Then it goes back in the case and into the closet. They never play it again, because they believe it’ll be very valuable one day.” This says a lot for Joe’s ukes, but it’s also just a little bit sad. Surely the real value of a musical instrument is the life it lives, the music it produces, and the history it communicates with every strum. Similarly, the real value of Joe’s work is not the money he makes or even his reputation as a luthier; it’s the joy of the craft that keeps him here, the scuff of wood grain beneath his fingertips, the tang of sawdust and varnish. It’s the satisfaction of making music out of a chunk of lumber. Five to 15 years is the length of that journey, with Joe as the navigator. I look at the log. The log looks at me. We can’t wait.